The central tenet of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s account of Stalin’s early life – from his birth in 1878 to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – is that nearly everyone else has got it wrong as a result of taking Trotsky at his word.
For Trotsky, Stalin was a “provincial mediocrity”, a bit-part player before 1917 whose subsequent rise to supreme power owed everything to his skilful bureaucratic manoeuvring after the Bolshevik revolution. With a couple of exceptions, says Sebag-Montefiore, all those who have written about Stalin have concurred: most biographies deal cursorily if at all with the first 40 years of his life.
He is exaggerating a bit: there’s actually quite a lot on Stalin’s early life even in such pioneering attempts at biography as those by Boris Souvarine (1937) and Isaac Deutscher (1949). But he has got a point. Apart from Robert Tucker’s Stalin as Revolutionary, published more than 30 years ago, most studies of the man baptised Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili have focused almost exclusively on what he did to seize power and what he did once he seized it. How it was that “the pre-1917 mediocrity” became “the twentieth-century colossus” has remained something of a mystery. This book is the first in English to use recently opened archives in Georgia to put flesh on the bones provided by Souvarine, Deutscher and Tucker – and it is an absolute gem.
Even if some of the story is familiar – joyless childhood, training to be a priest in a seminary, conversion to revolutionary politics, Bolshevik underground work, imprisonment, exile to Siberia – Sebag-Montefiore has found an extraordinary amount of new material that gives human colour to his narrative, and he writes with unusual zest and terseness.
The book opens with a brilliant reconstruction of a notorious 1907 bank robbery in Tiflis (now Tblisi) that the young Dzhugashvili organised, and its pace never slows. Sebag-Montefiore handles everything deftly: his subject’s poetry, his love affairs, even the notoriously dry and fractious politics of the Russian empire’s Marxist left in the early years of the last century. Dzhugashvili – he adopted the nom de guerre Stalin only in 1913 – comes across as a complex, dynamic figure: a vicious thug and a charlatan, to be sure, but also a charmer, an accomplished journalist and a much more central figure in pre-revolutionary Bolshevik politics than Trotsky-inspired authorities allow.
Sebag-Montefiore’s account of the influence of Stalin’s experience as a young man on his actions as Soviet dictator is for the most part convincing. For example, it is difficult to disagree with his insistence that the paranoia that set in train the Great Terror of the 1930s was rooted in Stalin’s past in a revolutionary underground milieu riddled with Tsarist secret-police spies and accusations of treachery. (Stalin himself was probably a spook for a spell.)
But there are points on which Sebag-Montefiore takes things too far. Stalin’s being a Georgian undoubtedly made him an outsider in Russia, but did it really predispose him to tribalism and blood feuds? Georgia was the only part of the Russian empire that briefly established a working democracy after 1917, under a Menshevik government that was crushed by Bolshevik force of arms in 1921. Georgia’s most famous son might have embraced psychopathic gangsterism, but it’s hardly a national characteristic.